There is no society in history known for loving cats as much as Ancient Egypt did. Cats are present in Ancient Egyptian art, temples, palaces, and even burial sites. The Ancient Egyptians are even credited with being one of the first societies to domesticate cats. With all this in mind, their pantheon just wouldn’t be complete without the presence of their cat goddess, Bast.
The Sacred Cat
The Ancient Egyptians believed that cats were sacred. They were known as protectors because of their ability to chase off mice and other disease-carrying pests. This ability to control the population of rodents also protected the storehouses of food that the Ancient Egyptians needed to avoid starvation between growing seasons.
In the houses of royalty, cats were often adorned with gold jewelry and treated with special respect. Cats were allowed to eat from their owner’s plate. If a pet cat died, it was mourned as a human family member would be mourned. After the family finished their period of mourning for the deceased cat, it would be mummified just like its human counterparts. Punishments for harming a cat were harsh; killing a cat was punishable by death.
Bast the Cat Goddess
The cat goddess, Bast, was first known as the daughter of the sun-god Ra. She was considered a sun goddess, part of the group of goddesses known as “The Eye of Ra.” Bast is depicted as a woman with the head of a black cat, fully as a black cat, or a black cat with kittens. In earlier times, she was depicted more like a lion and in later times she became more like a house cat. She often carries with her a sistrum, which is an ancient rattle or musical instrument, and an aegis which is a protective necklace.
Also a part of “The Eye of Ra”, Bast is often confused with her counterpart Sekhmet. Also a lion goddess, Sekhmet was the ruthless protector of Upper Egypt while Bast was the more docile (but still feared) protector of Lower Egypt. Bast was said to be lion-like when angered, but house cat-like when calm.
Bast’s status as a goddess of protection began when she saved Ra from an evil snake god. She was known to be a fierce goddess – best friend to those who loved her and worst enemy of those who crossed her. As protector of the pharaoh, Bast held a very high status among the gods.
Bast Becomes Bastet
At the time of the 2nd dynasty, Bast was demoted in the Egyptian pantheon. It is likely the change was due to the splicing together of Greek and Egyptian cultures. Her name was changed to Bastet as a part of her demotion and she began to take on more of the features of the Greek goddess, Artemis. Bastet was no longer pictured as a lion goddess, but rather as a domestic house cat. She also became a moon goddess rather than a sun goddess (a characteristic of Artemis). Due to the Greek influence on Egypt was that Bastet was now the sister of Horus. Still a protector, Bastet was now the goddess of joy and fertility and protector of the home, children, and women. Rather than being a fierce goddess of vengeance, she was now fun-loving. She loved music and dancing.
Bubastis was the city where Bastet’s lavish temple resided. Yearly festivals to Bastet for adults only took place on riverboats that traveled down to Bubastis. Much like modern Mardi Gras, the festivals were known for drunkenness and sex. As the boats passed towns on their way down the river, the women on them would shout lewd things at the townspeople and lift their skirts over their head at them. At the temple, people would place statuettes of Bastet as an offering and make sacrifices. Of course, cats were not used as sacrifices.
What do you think: Are cats more popular on the internet today or in Ancient Egypt?
Sources & Digging Deeper
Bronze Figure of Cat-Headed Goddess Bastet – The British Museum